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A Good Man Is Hard to Find | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Plot Summary

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the plot summary of Flannery O'Connor's short story A Good Man Is Hard to Find.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find | Plot Summary & Analysis

See Plot Diagram


Preparing for the Trip

In the mid-1950s family road trips were a popular way to spend a vacation. The grandmother is most excited about the trip, despite her disapproval of the destination. The family is going to Florida, but the grandmother, who lives with Bailey, her son, and his family, does not want to go. She would prefer to visit her connections in east Tennessee. She tries to change Bailey's mind about where to go and mentions a story in the newspaper about The Misfit, a violent criminal who has escaped prison. Bailey ignores her, so the grandmother tries to convince the children's mother. The children's mother is busy with the baby and also ignores the grandmother.

John Wesley, the grandmother's eight-year-old grandson, suggests she stay home if she does not want to go to Florida. June Star, John Wesley's sister, says, "She wouldn't stay at home to be queen for a day." The grandmother asks how they would handle The Misfit if they saw him, but the children are not moved. After June Star makes another comment, the grandmother is angered and threatens to not curl her granddaughter's hair the next time she asks. June Star is unmoved because "her hair was naturally curly."

On the Road

When the family departs, "the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go." Hidden under the grandmother's luggage is her beloved cat, Pitty Sing, whom she brings because she thinks the cat will miss her too much if she is gone for three days. The grandmother keeps Pitty Sing out of sight because she knows Bailey would not approve. The grandmother has dressed very particularly in case an accident occurs. She wants people who discover her body to "know at once that she was a lady." As the family leaves Atlanta, the grandmother sits between her two grandchildren. She tracks the mileage and time, thinking this could be interesting.

During the journey the grandmother chats about various things, points out "interesting details of the scenery," and cautions Bailey about his speed. Nobody pays her much mind as the children read comic books and the children's mother sleeps.

The grandmother is concerned about the ways society is changing. On several occasions in the story she expresses a longing for the past. This romanticized past includes good people who come from backgrounds she approves of. While lecturing the children about respect and mentioning how things were different when she was young, the grandmother notes an African American boy standing in front of a house. When June Star remarks the boy is not wearing pants, the grandmother suggests he does not own pants because "little niggers in the country don't have things like we do."

The children's mother allows the grandmother to hold the baby. While holding the infant, the grandmother tells him about the scenery going by. The family passes a graveyard that is part of a cotton field, and the grandmother says, "That was the old family burying ground. That belonged to the plantation." When John Wesley asks, "Where's the plantation?" his grandmother jokes that it's "Gone with the Wind." After the family eats the sandwiches they had packed, the grandmother plays a game with John Wesley and June Star, which ends with them slapping each other. The grandmother offers to tell the children a story if they will be quiet. The story "tickled John Wesley's funny bone ... but June Star didn't think it was any good."

Lunch at the Tower

The family stops at the Tower, a roadside restaurant, run by Red Sammy Butts. Walking to the Tower they pass Red Sammy—who is working on his truck—and a "gray monkey about a foot high, chained to a small chinaberry tree." The family members are the only ones in the restaurant, and they are waited on by Red Sammy Butts's wife. The children's mother plays a song on the nickelodeon, or jukebox. The grandmother asks Bailey to dance, "but he only [glares] at her. ... trips [make] him nervous," and he has a negative disposition, unlike his mother. The next song is a fast one, and June Star tap dances to the music. Red Sammy's wife is impressed with June Star and asks if she would like to be her little girl. She answers harshly in the negative.

Red Sammy enters, and he bosses his wife around. She silently complies. He sits down near the family and states: "You can't win." He adds it's difficult to know who to trust these days. The grandmother agrees: "People are certainly not nice like they used to be." After Red Sammy relates a story about being ripped off, the grandmother tells him he is a good man. Red Sammy's wife agrees that people can't be trusted and looks at her husband, implying she considers him untrustworthy as well.

The grandmother brings up The Misfit, and when Red Sammy's wife starts talking, Red Sammy orders her away. At this point he offers the opinion "a good man is hard to find." He and the grandmother talk about better times before the family leaves.

Detour to the Plantation

Back in the car the grandmother recalls a plantation she visited when she was young. Hoping to revisit the place—but sure Bailey will not agree to the detour—she says she knows exactly how to get there and describes the plantation dramatically. When no one seems interested, she invents a story about a secret panel in the house that hides the family's silver. John Wesley and June Star are intrigued and nag their father relentlessly. Bailey eventually gives in.

The grandmother directs Bailey to the dirt road that leads to the plantation. John Wesley is scheming about how to get the silver. The grandmother recalls travel in the old days before paved roads. Bailey is anxious to get there as they go down "the road [which looks] as if no one [has] traveled on it in months."

The grandmother assures Bailey they are almost there and then realizes she has made a mistake—the plantation is in Tennessee, not Georgia. The embarrassment over the mistake causes her to stir, and the movement allows Pitty Sing to escape from his basket.

The Accident

Pitty Sing jumps on Bailey, who crashes the car. The family is banged up, but other than the broken shoulder suffered by the children's mother no one is seriously hurt. The incident excites the children, who exit the car "shouting, 'We've had an ACCIDENT!'" The grandmother wishes that she were injured in order to escape her son's fury. The adults are in shock and sit in a ditch. After a few minutes "a big black battered hearse-like automobile" with three people approaches slowly.

The Misfit: Arrival and Consequences

Three men eventually get out of the car, and it is clear that the eldest is their leader. He wears tight jeans, no shirt, "and [is] holding a black hat and a gun." The others also have guns. The children let them know the family had an accident, and the grandmother realizes the leader looks familiar. When the leader gives the family orders June Star demands, "What are you telling US what to do for?"

While Bailey tries to explain their situation, the grandmother excitedly declares, "You're The Misfit!" The Misfit tells her it would have been better if she had not recognized him. Bailey reprimands his mother. The grandmother says to The Misfit, "You wouldn't shoot a lady, would you?" When The Misfit replies, "I would hate to have to," the grandmother says he is a good man, without common blood who comes "from nice people."

After affirming his parents were fine people, The Misfit brings up the weather, and the grandmother agrees with him. She again tries to tell him he is a good man. Bailey yells and says he wants to handle this. The Misfit instructs his men—Bobby Lee and Hiram—to take Bailey and John Wesley to the woods. Bailey continues to talk for a moment before "his voice [cracks] ... and he [remains] perfectly still." While he and John Wesley are being led off to the woods, Bailey calls to his mother to wait, as he will be back in a minute. The grandmother shrieks that he should return "this instant!"

The grandmother again says to The Misfit, "I just know you're a good man." He corrects her—saying he's not a good man, but there are worse. He talks about his father who said that he (The Misfit) was different from his other children. The Misfit apologizes for not wearing a shirt, and the grandmother suggests Bailey may have an extra one in his baggage. The children's mother screams and asks where her husband and son are being taken. The Misfit ignores her and continues talking about his father. The grandmother replies he could be like his father and settle down to a decent life.

The grandmother asks The Misfit if he prays, and he says no. When two shots ring out from the woods, the grandmother calls out "Bailey Boy!" Undisturbed The Misfit casually recites a list of jobs and bizarre experiences that have marked his life. He states he was not a bad boy, although he had done "something wrong" and ended up in the penitentiary. The grandmother wants to know why he was in prison, but The Misfit claims he cannot remember. The grandmother suggests it may have been a mistake, but The Misfit says the authorities have papers that say he killed his father, so it must have happened. Yet The Misfit says his father died in the flu epidemic of 1919.

The grandmother asserts if The Misfit would pray, then Jesus would help him. The Misfit agrees, but he says he does not want help. When The Misfit's men return from the woods, Bobby Lee is carrying Bailey's shirt, which The Misfit puts on. He mentions the particular crime an individual commits does not matter: although he eventually will forget exactly what he has done, he will be punished nonetheless. When Bailey's shirt returns without Bailey in it, the children's mother struggles to breathe, and The Misfit offers her the chance to take June Star and follow her husband. She accepts and—escorted by Bobby Lee and Hiram—she walks off to the woods with June Star and the baby.

The grandmother falls silent when she is left with The Misfit. She struggles to encourage him to pray—murmuring, "'Jesus. Jesus,' meaning, Jesus will help you." However, the way the grandmother is speaking "it [sounds] as if she might be cursing." The Misfit agrees with her and says he is like Jesus except Jesus had not committed a crime that could be proven while "I had committed one because they had the papers on me." The Misfit said a signature proves everything. After a scream from the woods followed by gunshots, The Misfit goes on, but the grandmother is terrified and says, "You've got good blood! I know you wouldn't shoot a lady!" She offers The Misfit money, but she is in no position to bargain.

Two more shots ring out from the woods, and the grandmother calls out to Bailey. The Misfit continues talking about Jesus and raising the dead. The Misfit's voice is about to crack when the grandmother reaches out to touch his shoulder, saying, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" The Misfit recoils "as if a snake had bitten him." He shoots the grandmother in the chest. In death her legs are crossed like a child's and her smiling face gazes up at the sky.

After The Misfit instructs the men to put her with the rest of the family, he says the grandmother had the potential to be a good woman, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." When Bobby Lee says killing the family has been fun, The Misfit is annoyed and says life does not include real pleasure.


The Grandmother and The Misfit—Similarities and Differences

The central characters of the story, The Misfit and the grandmother, cannot—on the surface—be more different. The grandmother is an aged proper southern woman who longs for the past. The Misfit is an escaped convict who has been jailed for killing his father and believes there is "no pleasure but meanness." Despite their differences these two characters are able to converse together in a meaningful way.

Looking beyond the surface, the grandmother is not the person she appears to be. While she claims to believe in Jesus and prides herself on being a lady, she actually is shallow, selfish, and judgmental. Like the grandmother The Misfit is not who he appears to be on the surface. He is a violent killer yet he speaks and acts thoughtfully.

Both the grandmother and The Misfit display shallowness of character. The grandmother's concern, should there be an accident, is not that her family should survive but that witnesses observing her carefully dressed corpse will realize she was a lady. When the grandmother recognizes The Misfit, he smiles, pleased to know his reputation has spread.

The grandmother and The Misfit like to be in control. The grandmother tries to direct her family. She tells Bailey what to do and lectures the children on proper behavior. The Misfit does all he can do to manage his fate. He orders Bobby Lee and Hiram around and has them kill the family.

The connection between the grandmother and The Misfit is most evident during their conversation. The Misfit and the grandmother speak extensively about deep topics, and even when they disagree they continue to talk. During her conversation with The Misfit, the grandmother acts kindly. She says, "You're a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell." When one of the men throws Bailey's shirt to The Misfit, the grandmother encourages him to "be honest" and to "settle down and live a comfortable life." She sounds like a kindly old woman who is offering sage advice to a wayward young man.


At one point while talking to The Misfit, the grandmother turns to the subject of religion. She considers herself a religious person and a believer in Jesus. The grandmother trusts religion to provide comfort and salvation. She encourages The Misfit to pray and look to Jesus and know that he can be helped. As the grandmother's fear rises, her repeated use of Jesus's name sounds "as if she might be cursing." The grandmother is out of practice when it comes to religion.

The Misfit is not a believer, mentioning "I don't want no hep. ... I'm doing all right by myself." The grandmother, however, seems to want to prove she is a woman of faith—especially in this extreme circumstance. Talk of Jesus upsets The Misfit, and at one point he claims there is "no pleasure but meanness." At this point his voice is "almost a snarl."

The Misfit's anger seems to come from his inability to believe in Jesus, since he was not present to see if Jesus raised the dead. He claims if he was a believer, "I wouldn't be like I am now." This realization saddens him greatly as he is on the verge of tears and "his voice [seems] about to crack." He appears to want inspiration and salvation.

Their conversation allows the grandmother to reclaim the good within herself as she strives to help a fellow human being. She recognizes herself and The Misfit as children of God and that religion has saved her from living a hard and mean life. This realization kindles pity for The Misfit and, reaching out to him, she declares, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!"

The grandmother's sudden religious epiphany and declaration of loving kindness overwhelms The Misfit, who—unable to accept her overture—immediately shoots her dead and attempts to shed the emotion and insight of the moment by cleaning his glasses.

The grandmother's act of grace toward The Misfit has gained her eternal peace, but it is apparent that he has not undergone such a dramatic change. He does, however, understand that it is the threat of death that changed the grandmother and that a repeated threat "every minute of her life" might have allowed her to be a good person on a daily basis. He no longer believes there is pleasure in meanness, but instead "it's no real pleasure in life." He is not yet ready to live a good life and be a good man. While The Misfit is the vehicle through which the grandmother gains grace, he has yet to achieve that state himself.


Flannery O'Connor uses foreshadowing throughout the story to build anticipation:

  • The Misfit: The grandmother and other characters refer to The Misfit several times before the family's fateful meeting with the fugitive. As they prepare for the trip, the grandmother warns Bailey, "This fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose ... and headed toward Florida." At the Tower restaurant Red Sammy Butts, his wife, and the grandmother discuss The Misfit, wondering whether he will drop in at the restaurant.
  • Graveyard: The graveyard the family passes contains "five or six" graves, a number that equals the population of the grandmother's family.
  • Toombsboro: This town, which the family passes after their lunch break, is a partial homophone for tombs.
  • Automobile: The "big black battered hearse-like automobile" the killers arrive in may be an omen predicting the vehicle is soon to be needed for the grandmother and her family.
  • The woods: When The Misfit first addresses the family members, the narrator notes, "Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth." Ominously, the dark woods will soon be the resting place for the grandmother and the others.


Some of the historical and cultural allusions O'Connor uses include the following:

  • John Wesley (1703–91): Bailey's son seemingly is named for the 18th-century John Wesley, an Anglican (Church of England) minister who cofounded Methodism. As a young man Wesley emigrated from England to Savannah, Georgia, to lead a congregation of colonists. After proposing to a woman who chose to marry someone else, Wesley returned to England, where he remained. At the time of Wesley's death in 1791 Methodism—the Christian sect he founded with his brother, Charles, and their friend, George Whitefield—had more than 110,000 followers in Britain and the United States.
  • Pitty Sing: Grandmother's cat appears to be named for Pitti-Sing, an excitable character in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Mikado, first performed in 1885. A further allusion may be to the Mikado character himself, whose preoccupation is to "let the punishment fit the crime." This idea reflects The Misfit's concern: "You can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match." The Misfit is concerned because he believes the punishment he has received does not match the crimes he remembers committing.
  • Gone with the Wind: The grandmother jokingly says the roadside graveyard belonged to a plantation that is "gone with the wind." She alludes to the famous 1936 novel by Savannah native Margaret Mitchell (1900–49) and to the subsequent 1939 film—each depicting life on a Georgia plantation during and after the Civil War. With this reference she also alludes to a way of life that no longer exists.
  • "The Tennessee Waltz": When the children's mother plays this song on the Tower's nickelodeon, it is an allusion to times gone by, to lost friendships, and to lost love. Hearing the tune makes the grandmother "want to dance." This may be a reference to Edgar Atkins Teagarden, the grandmother's suitor from long ago who went on to become a wealthy man. The song may also allude to the destination the grandmother prefers for the family trip. This song was played widely during the time frame of the story, as the most famous recording of "The Tennessee Waltz" was released in 1950 by the singer Patti Page (1927–2013).

A Good Man Is Hard to Find Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 The grandmother reads about The Misfit.

Rising Action

2 The family sets out on their road trip to Florida.

3 The family eats lunch at Red Sammy Butts's restaurant.

4 The grandmother tells tall tales about a plantation.

5 The children beg Bailey to go to the plantation.

6 Startled, the grandmother causes Pitty Sing to escape.


7 Pitty Sing jumps on Bailey, causing him to crash the car.

Falling Action

8 The Misfit and his men find the family along the road.


9 The grandmother tries to help The Misfit; he kills her.

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